The Single Most Common Problem with Application Stories

By | April 24, 2011

…is manuscript format. Every year.

Why manuscript format?

Because it makes things easier.

You can write in whatever format you want. Write in pencil at the end of your Algebra notebook, scribble in pen on receipts, write white-on-blue on the computer, dictate to a person or a program, use the defaults for your word processor, whichever one it is. Write however you want.

When you show other people, though, you have to make certain changes.

Proper manuscript format makes it easier for the editor or slush reader to get through your story. That’s really what it is. There aren’t boxes or squidgy characters where your computer’s apostrophes failed to turn into their computer’s apostrophes. The text is large enough to read and well-spaced. No one has to change the font.

When you don’t use proper manuscript format, you make things harder on the slush reader, which, consciously or not, is a tick in the ‘no’ column. More than that, you mark your story as belonging to someone who doesn’t care… or you mark your story as a bad story. You care enough to write it, to edit it, to figure out markets and editors and SASEs, don’t you care enough to use Courier? Or perhaps you didn’t actually care to edit it and figure out the right market, as evidenced by your lack of proper manuscript format.

Manuscript format is important. It won’t kill your story, but it gives a strong first impression.

So how do you accomplish it?

The links at the beginning of the post are to manuscript format pages. I won’t repeat everything in them– I’m just going to handle a few of the weird and worrisome questions you might have. Many of these are things I saw while reading application stories– don’t worry, I couldn’t tell you any specific story that did them, so this is not a direct reaction to any– but some are weird personal peeves.

Somewhere in your word processer, there is an option of Header and Footer. Use it. The first several stories I sent out had the header in the main text, which is just a pain.

I also like to see the header in the same font as the story, perhaps in a smaller size. Some word processers don’t default to this.

Also somewhere is a Page Setup or Page Layout, which gives an option for a Different First Page Header. Use this. It’s a personal peeve, but your first page is obviously your first page.

About that first page….
Do you need your address, phone number, email, and Social Security number? Except the last, yes. I’ve never been notified of an acceptance any way but email, but it does happen.

Do you need your word count? Heck yes. Use whatever method you prefer– I go with Word– and round to the nearest hundred. Don’t make the editor do this extra step.



Times, Courier, Dark Courier if you’re printing. If it looks different enough that the reader can tell, it is different enough to throw the reader off a bit. If it’s not different enough but you just love Baskerville Old Face, why bother? You run the risk that the reader doesn’t have that font installed and now your story is interesting in a bad way.

You are not typesetting your story for publication. That happens later and by someone else.

Not My Peeve
Somewhere in your word processer, probably on the ruler at the top, is something called a tab stop. This automatically puts an indent at the beginning of a paragraph. I am told that judicious use of this feature makes life better for the eventual typesetter and/or copyeditor, whoever it is who has to take out all those tabs they don’t want in the story.

If your ending is completely unambiguous– the last page is three-quarters blank and the text ends with a sunset being ridden into– you do not need a signpost. If it’s ambiguous, it’s worth a line of END.

But how do I…?
Some questions can be answered without familiarity with a given word processer. Some cannot. Try us in the comments– if you know how to scoot the word count to the right without using six tabs, if you have a template set up, if you are curious about Dark Courier, let us know!

5 thoughts on “The Single Most Common Problem with Application Stories

  1. Noella

    I guess it is a good thing I resubmitted my story with the heading after it mysteriously fell off!

  2. Catherine Krahe Post author

    Noella, I’ve done worse.

    I also forgot the most important part: If the guidelines for your market contradict any portion of standard manuscript format, FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES.

  3. Noella

    Are there any markets that have you submit stories in a format that are totally different from regular standards or are just plain weird that anyone has encountered?

  4. Catherine Krahe Post author

    I can’t think of any save the Dells, which don’t want your name on anything with the story on it. Strange Horizons used to have a much more involved submission-formatting process, but they’ve since streamlined it.

  5. Diane Turnshek

    It’s worth noting that the word count doesn’t have to be precise. Any way of calculating it is fine, because once the story has been purchased, the editors will tell YOU how many words it has and what their rate of payment will be. Not something to stress about.

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